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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Probably the quintessential book on the French Revolution, 17 Jan. 2012
By 
Mark Stokle (Norwich, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ancien Regime and the Revolution (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Alexis De Tocqueville was a 19th century French aristocrat from Normandy who trained as a lawyer and was once a pupil of Francois Guizot, the notoriously corrupt finance minister of King Louis Philippe. He was also a good friend of John Stuart Mill. As a young man, he was sent on an observation tour of the US penal system in 1831. His journey led him to undertake a wider reflection on the nature of democratic ideals in America ("Democracy in America") which is his best known work in the Anglo-Saxon world.

However, De Tocqueville was also a French philosopher and politician whose critique of the 1789 Revolution in France is rightly regarded as one of the most influential political pamphlets ever written. It examines what the real consequences of the revolution were in political terms, and discusses the contradictions they revealed in French society. The views expressed in this book stand in stark contrast to other interpretations of the revolution, notably those of Edmund Burke.

De Tocqueville first destroys the myth that the French Revolution was a struggle of the working classes. 1789 was a bourgeois revolt which enlisted the help of the common people. Many of the great revolutionary leaders were lawyers (Danton, Robespierre), doctors (Marat), journalists (Desmoulins), civil servants (Fouche), or even clergymen (Sieyes, Talleyrand). Louis XIV opened Pandora's box when he initiated the policy of manipulating the middle-classes to undermine the power of the aristocracy. He promoted businessmen like Fouquet and Colbert to important administrative posts, but made sure they had no real political authority. This effectively brought an end to feudalism in France, and greatly enriched the middle classes at the expense of the nobles. However, it did not grant them the same level of political power.

For this reason, De Tocqueville regards the onset of the revolution as having been inevitable. Sooner or later, the obsolete feudal system was bound to collapse. Ironically France - widely regarded as the most advanced political nation at the time - was also the first country to experience a complete breakdown of its social order. The resulting struggle closely resembled the events that had taken place in England 150 years beforehand. But unlike the English nobles, the French aristocrats refused to compromise and share power. They paid the ultimate price for their stubbornness. Later on during Napoleon's reign, efforts were made to reconstitute the French aristocracy by ennobling a wide range of bourgeois families and pitting them against the remnants of the old nobility.

This work also explains very accurately why the revolutionaries attacked the Catholic Church in France. De Tocqueville argues that it was not religion that came under attack, but rather the power of the Church as a political institution. People despised the widespread corruption of the clerical establishment and resented the financial control it exerted over them (the lower classes payed the tithe). It's no wonder that cathedrals - the symbol of the Church's power over its subjects - were plundered and looted by the revolutionaries throughout France.

Contrary to most historians, De Tocqueville concludes that the French Revolution did not destroy the concept of absolutism. It merely recycled it into a Republican version of what the monarchy had been. France in the modern age is often portrayed as a "Republican Monarchy", with Sarkozy of course being the latest manifestation of this phenomenon.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone seeking a more thorough understanding of the French Revolution and how it has influenced modern political thought.
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Ancien Regime and the Revolution (Penguin Classics)
Ancien Regime and the Revolution (Penguin Classics) by Alexis de Tocqueville (Paperback - 29 May 2008)
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